There’s a lot of talk about money in politics. As we have previously discussed, a lot of the concern is misplaced or based on misconceptions. The urge to construct more laws to make things fairer is a popular one among Americans. The idea is that more regulation will stem some of the money flowing into campaigns and elections and thus remove conflicts of interest. The problem is that these laws are often written in a way that benefits incumbents—which isn’t too surprising when considering that they are written by incumbents. Americans should beware of lawmakers who decry money in politics as a method to limit competition and ensure their own reelection.
As incumbents, members of congress and the president have many inherent advantages that prevent challengers from effectively competing in elections. That’s why congressional incumbents are reelected between 84-95% of the time. Let’s take a look at some of the inherent advantages incumbents have and how federal election law has been used to create or maintain it.
In the 1990’s a study showed that in 1994 and 1996, only 3% of congressional challengers who spent less than $600,000 were victorious. It’s no surprise that in 1997, the Shays-Meehan Act attempted to limit congressional campaigns to under $600,000—essentially trying to ensure challengers would never have the fund necessary to win.
That’s because incumbents already have hundreds of thousands of dollars in free access to voters, travel, and resources they may utilize that challengers have to pay for. Challengers already face an uphill battle, as many Americans are likely to vote for the name they know, but additional restrictions on campaigns only make that climb even more insurmountable.
Incumbents get free travel. They have to provide some sort of justification, but it’s easy to do. Politicians end up traveling to their home districts often during campaign season. Whereas challengers need to raise money to travel anywhere.
Incumbents are able to open up various offices in their home district, in Washington, and even in other states. They staff those offices with taxpayer paid staffs. Those staff work for the politician’s needs, increase their visibility, and communicate with voters. These staffs can exceed 7,000 people, all paid for by taxpayers. Again, challengers enjoy no such benefits. They have to depend on volunteers and donations every step of the way.
Incumbents also get access better access to voters. Taxpayer paid mail means federal incumbents can send out tons of mailers, fliers, and promotional materials for barely any cost. Meanwhile, challengers need to spend 35 cents for each item. Incumbents also have staffs dedicated to communicating with and addressing the concerns of voters. They are able to help constituents navigate a complex federal system, and for doing so they are seen favorably and receive more votes at the polls. Again, this is a benefit of a taxpayer funded staff which challengers do not have.